In a surprise televised address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s first successful test of an anti-satellite weapon, which the government used to destroy its own satellite. Modi said the test signifies India as a “space power,” but critics claim it’s a regrettable and reckless step toward the ongoing weaponization of space.
“Our scientists shot down a live satellite 300 kilometers [185 miles] away in space, in low-earth orbit,” declared Modi in his address, as relayed by Reuters. “India has made an unprecedented achievement today. India registered its name as a space power.”
India is now the fourth country to have tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon, the others being the United States, Russia, and China. The 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty, to which more than 100 countries are bound, forbids the use of weapons of mass destruction in space, but no provisions exist against the use of conventional weapons to disable or jam satellites in orbit. (That said, the Council on Foreign Relations believes anti-satellite missile tests are arguably in technical violation of the treaty).
India’s 3-minute test, called Mission Shakti, was initiated from an island near the country’s east coast, the foreign ministry said in a statement. The test was done at a low altitude to ensure the resulting debris would “decay and fall back onto the Earth within weeks,” wrote the ministry, and not remain in space where it could damage other equipment in orbit.
Satellite tracker Marco Langbroek claims the ASAT missile was launched from Abdul Kalam island, with the likely target being Microsat-r (2019-006A), which was operational at the time. The test happened at around 5:40 UT earlier today. In a tweet, professor Hugh Lewis, Head of the Astronautics Research Group at the University of Southampton, said “this is not the act of a responsible space nation. I expect swift and strong condemnation will follow.”
This incident is reminiscent of a notorious test conducted in 2007, in which China similarly destroyed its own satellite, spawning a huge debris field consisting of hundreds of objects. Both the United States and the former Soviet Union conducted anti-satellite tests from the 1950s through to the 1970s.
India’s test “was a highly complex one, conducted at extremely high speed with remarkable precision,” the prime minister said in a tweet. “It shows the remarkable dexterity of India’s outstanding scientists and the success of our space programme.” To which he added: “It will make India stronger, even more secure and will further peace and harmony.”
The foreign ministry said “space must be used only for peaceful purposes,” and that India is “against the weaponization of outer space and support international efforts to reinforce the safety and security of space-based assets.”
That’s some exceptionally flowery language for what was clearly an unabashed display of saber rattling, and a conspicuous demonstration of India’s newfound capacity to work—and apparently, fight—in space. Indeed, India’s space program has been chugging along nicely over the past several years. The country now offers affordable launch solutions (in 2017 India set a record by deploying 104 satellites during a single launch) and space-based tech like Earth-imaging satellites. India sent a spacecraft to Mars in 2014, and it’s hoping to send its own astronauts to space by 2022.
The timing of today’s announcement is questionable given that Modi is currently in the midst of an election campaign and the recent tensions between India and Pakistan. Modi’s critics claim the prime minister is deliberately (and possibly illegally) trying to swing votes. Also, the test occurred as the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) met in Geneva to discuss the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS); India’s actions can be construed as a kind of slap in the face.
India was already a space power before this test, claims Jessica West, a program officer at Project Ploughshares and the managing editor of its Space Security Index. She finds it concerning that the nation needed a weapons test to further consolidate this standing.
“There are other ways that this capability could have been demonstrated, that would have caused less harm and been less aggressive, such as a flyby test,” West told Gizmodo. “There is nothing defensive about an ASAT test. They are inherently offensive. And such destructive capability does little to enhance national security in outer space. Instead, we need to be focusing on enhancing common security within this global—and highly sensitive—domain.”
West described the test as reckless, saying it’s adding fuel to “an already simmering arms race in outer space,” and at a time “when states are meeting in Geneva to discuss possible approaches to restraining the use and deployment of weapons in space.” What’s more, West believes the test “stands in stark contrast to India’s position on arms control and the peaceful uses of space.”
West was less than thrilled about the resulting debris field, which she described as an “environmental hazard” that, even if short-lived, will “put other spacecraft at risk.”
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said Mission Shakti is an unfortunate development that’s making space less safe.
“It is a side effect of the increasing great power rivalry in Asia, in this case between China and India,” McDowell told Gizmodo. “I think we had a chance in the early 2000s to head this off, but instead U.S. rhetoric about military control of space fanned the flames and encouraged China and other states to accelerate rather than hold off on their space weapons efforts. Now we may be looking at a new space arms race.”
Indeed, despite the howls of protest garnered by the India test, it’s doubtful anything meaningful will be done in the near term to curb the ongoing weaponization of space. Complaints by the U.S., Russia, and China would be hypocritical given their capacity to do the same while at the same time exhibiting an unwillingness to relinquish such power. It appears that, as more nations venture into space, we’ll have to grudgingly accept this as being the new normal.